Saturday, April 6, 2013
LADY VANISHES, THE
(November 1938, U.S.)
In the 2005 thriller FLIGHTPLAN, Jodie Foster plays a woman flying on a passenger aircraft with her young daughter who falls asleep and awakens to find her daughter missing. She begins to question her own sanity when everyone on the plane agrees that she never had a daughter and has imagined the entire event. We further learn that just about everyone on the plane is in on the ultimate conspiracy against her and that she is, in fact, not crazy and DOES have a daughter who's disappeared. I start by pointing this out because it's my bet that this particular inferior film is about as close as today's generation of moviegoers are likely to get to the appreciation of Alfred Hitchcock's THE LADY VANISHES. Yes, people, FLIGHTPLAN was hardly very original. It was based on the original premise of THE LADY VANISHES.
For Hitchcock's film, which I might point out is a wonderful piece of his early British period of films, the case in question is the beautiful English tourist named Iris Henderson (played by Margaret Lockwood) who's traveling home by train to be married to a man she doesn't love. En route, she meets the kindly elderly former governess Miss Froy (played by Dame May Whitty) and the rather irritating English gentleman Gilbert (played by Michael Redgrave), a young musicologist who is studying the folk songs of the local European region (people actually DO that??). En route, Iris is also struck on the head by a falling planter meant for Miss Froy, who takes on the role of kind stranger aboard the train and helps Iris recover with a spot of tea and some kind friendship. Iris eventually falls asleep for a long time. When she wakes up...well, can you guess it...yes, Miss Froy has disappeared and no one else on the train will support Iris' claim that she's disappeared. The general opinion is that the injury to her head has caused the imagined halucination of Miss Froy and everything that took place between them. The only one on board who will believe her story and help her to find Miss Froy is, of course, the irritating Gilbert, whom as I'm sure you can already guess, she will fall in love with before she arrives home to marry the wrong man.
While the early cloak and dagger mystery of this story can hardly be compared with that of later Hitchcock films like VERTIGO (1958) and NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959), the premise of political intruige and espionage is very clear and work well, even when the secret agent in question is a gently, kindly old lady. There are still some very bad people aboard this train who mean to commit some very harmful actions against her and it's up to the persistence of the two good samaritans to do their job right until the very end, even when the bad guys start shooting their guns! The story is further blessed by great characters and many witty and imaginative touches, in particular the conceit by which the passengers are each given selfish motives for refusing to verify Iris' story, as well as the general chemistry between the two leads. And as always, there's the appreciation of good ol' fashioned classic black and white photography to take into account with any film of this nature. There's a reason Alfred Hitchcock was called "the master of suspense" and the craft and sophistication of THE LADY VANISHES was only just the early reason he rightfully desereved that cinematic honor.
Again, I urge you, if you haven't yet experienced Hitchcock's early period of British films, you're missing some great titles like THE 39 STEPS (1935), SABOTAGE (1936), his original version of THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1934), and of course, the film I've just discussed. Give them the chance they deserve, dammit!
Favorite line or dialogue:
Iris Henderson: "I've no regrets. I've been everywhere and done everything. I've eaten caviar at Cannes, sausage rolls at the dogs. I've played baccarat at Biarritz and darts with the rural dean. What is there left for me but marriage?"